False news travels much faster online than the truth – and it’s all because of our craving for novelty.
In the largest-ever study looking at how news spreads on social media, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysed 126,000 stories on Twitter from between 2006 and 2017. They found that false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted than those that were true, and that true stories took six-times longer, on average, to reach an audience of 1,500 people.
One surprise was that automated robots – or bots – played no part in this discrepancy. “False news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it,” said the authors of the study, which was published in the journal Science. They concluded that the high visibility of false stories is not necessarily the result of malign intent: fake news may get shared more than the truth simply because people find it more surprising or intriguing than the truth. “False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information,” said co-author Professor Sinan Aral. (The Week. 24 March 2018)
Let us all avoid social media, resign, close our accounts! We can’t uninvent these unnecessary time-gobblers, but if a significant part of the population boycotted them the facts, opinions and statistics that Facebook et al steal from us will become unrepresentative and thus unreliable. Advertisers will spend less money based on Facebook data, the share price will fall and maybe a more ethical company will take them over, with full government oversight that ensures the exclusion of Russians.
Newspapers and TV stations broadcast false news, not necessarily deliberately, it is true. Something has to be done about them, too, like apologies in big typeface on front pages or flashed on screens. Epicurus might have been philosophical about all this – news must have been unreliable and subject to word-of-mouth distortion in his day, but he would have rejected the idea of the mass dissemination of lies on our modern scale.